UK competition watchdog to look into pricing of Covid tests for travel

CMA to investigate PCR tests market after concerns about vastly different prices being charged

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Last modified on Sun 8 Aug 2021 08.13 EDT

The competition watchdog is to look into fees for the Covid-19 tests required for international travel after concerns about the vastly different prices being charged for them.

The Competition and Markets Authority will provide advice and intelligence on the market in PCR tests to the health secretary, Sajid Javid, to enable the government to act.

This route is being taken because a formal investigation, which could lead to criminal action, would take months to complete, so that its impact would come long after the key holiday season.

PCR tests are needed to travel to some overseas holiday destinations and on return from amber- and green-list countries.

Similar tests for day 2 and 8 after return to England listed on the government’s website can cost more than £300 or as little as £20. On average, prices in the UK are £75, compared with about £40 in France and Greece.

Javid wrote to the CMA on Friday asking the body to help stamp out “exploitative behaviour” and “unfair practices” among the 400-plus firms which offer the tests and he said the government was determined to take action.

“The cost of PCR testing can act as a barrier, especially for families who want to travel together,” Javid said in a letter to Dr Andrea Coscelli, CMA chief executive, first reported by The Sunday Times.

He asked the watchdog to carry out “a rapid high-level review” of the market and assess what action might be taken “to ensure that consumers do not face unnecessarily high costs or other poor provision”.

A CMA spokesperson said: “We are aware of concerns about the evolving markets for Covid-19 tests for international travellers. We look forward to providing the secretary of state with advice on how best to ensure that travellers have access to tests that are affordable and reliable.”

The latest probe comes after the Advertising Standards Authority said it was investigating, after receiving complaints from consumers about what it described as “inconsistent pricing” of tests on the government website.

While there are more than 450 alternatives listed on the government portal, the supply of tests and processing is done by only a handful of labs, with seven handling about 75% of the market.

Analysis of the deals advertised by the first 50 companies on the list recently showed that of the 36 offering on-site tests or click-and-collect packages, the cheapest options for travellers, two-thirds could not be bought or had no appointments until September.

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